Today, the U.S. House of Representatives is voting on a potentially historical piece of legislation. Co-sponsored by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the American Clean Energy and Security Act, more commonly referred to as the "Cap-and-Trade" bill, intends to reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions. Creating a sweeping new energy policy is one of the new administration's priorities, and the passage of this legislation would be the first step toward that goal.
However, one famous supporter of President Obama is uncomfortable with the current language of this bill. In a CNBC interview on Wednesday, Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A ) CEO Warren Buffett agreed that it's important to "move on carbon emissions" but had this to say about cap-and-trade:
I think if you get into the way it was written, it's a huge tax and there's no sense calling it anything else. I mean, it is a tax. And it's a fairly regressive tax. If we buy permits, essentially, at our utilities, that goes right into the bills of the utility customers, and an awful lot of people in Iowa, in Oregon, and Utah, and places where we are, very poor people are going to pay a lot more money for electricity. So I think that can be improved.
What do our Foolish energy experts think about the legislation?
Christopher Barker, Fool writer
We all knew cap-and-trade was on the table, but the way this 1,200-page, life-altering bill is speeding through the legislative process leaves this cautious Fool with a profound sense of discomfort.
I certainly feel that viable clean energy remains the defining challenge of our time, but in my utopian fantasies of a cleaner future, I've envisioned a far greater role for solar and wind power. I didn't hop aboard the Pickens Plan either, but I found the wind component intriguing. According to the EPA, emission reductions under cap-and-trade would rely heavily upon nuclear power and carbon capture and sequestration (CCS).
Personally, I oppose nuclear energy, because I consider radioactive waste and Chernobyl-type risks utterly unacceptable. At least smog reminds us that our energy is dangerous. Capturing coal emissions and injecting them into the ground is a novel idea, and I've tracked the efforts by companies like Peabody Energy (NYSE: BTU ) and American Electric Power to lead the way forward, but it strikes me as akin to Yucca Mountain -- shove the stuff in there and hope for no earthquakes.
The rest of my concerns are economic. I've seen cost estimates ranging from as little as $175 per household per year, to a whopping $1,600 -- both from the same source! In the midst of a financial catastrophe, Americans deserve to know which figure is closer to reality.
David Lee Smith, Fool writer
As I've told Fools in the past, I'm a decided fan of green, believing that we must keep our planet as pure as possible. But I'm not certain that Waxman-Markey is the proper answer for that effort.
The bill promises that the U.S. will almost double the share of energy obtained from zero- or low-carbon sources during the next couple of decades. Further, it estimates that about 65% of new generation built by 2025 will be renewable and 92% would be low-carbon. I'm skeptical of this approach.
Here's why: Missing is a discussion of interim fuels and power. To my way of thinking, we must move, with help from the likes of General Electric (NYSE: GE ) and Chesapeake (NYSE: CHK ) , from our current dependence on oil and coal, to a much higher usage of natural gas and nuclear, which produce far less carbon than coal or oil and are domestically viable. Then, if our 2025 goal is delayed -- as I suspect it will be -- we will nevertheless have benefited our environment and our national security in the meantime.
Toby Shute, Fool writer
In the broadest terms, I'm a bit unhappy that the House has gone with a cap-and-trade system that hands out most of the emissions permits for free at the outset. This is a matter of political expediency, rather than optimal policy. How else do you get Dominion (NYSE: D ) and the rest of the utility sector on board?
Drilling down a bit further, though, there are some things to like in this bill.
We would finally get a federal renewable-energy requirement, scaling up to 20% of electricity generation by 2020. Granted, the definition of "renewable" has been broadened to include power generated by burning trash, courtesy of companies such as Covanta. That's not necessarily the most climate-friendly of solutions.
Efficiency gains can also be used to reduce the renewable requirement, but I'm pretty fine with that. As I argued in my look at last year's IPO by Energy Recovery (Nasdaq: ERII ) , energy efficiency is the low-hanging fruit and should be eagerly exploited. A greener building code features in the bill, as does a strengthened standard for lighting and appliances.
I'd also note that the bill gives the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) authority to get involved in regional transmission planning. This could prevent serious hangups in the siting of new high-voltage lines, which are critical to tie remote installations by the likes of SunPower (Nasdaq: SPWRA ) into the grid, or run wind generated in the Midwest to coastal states. Whether the measure has enough teeth to make the FERC truly effective in expediting these procedures is unclear, though.
So what does the Foolish community think about cap-and-trade, or the Waxman-Markey bill specifically? Leave your thought in the comment section below and let us know.
For more roundtable Foolishness: